May 18, 2023


Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5; The Creatures of Prometheus—Overture. Garrick Ohlsson, piano; Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra conducted by Sir Donald Runnicles. Reference Recordings. $34.98 (3 SACDs).

     There exist innumerable recordings of the “canonic five” piano concertos by Beethoven – which, along with 2020 being the 250th anniversary of his birth, may be one reason for the increasing recent attention to his other 2½. Those are a “youth concerto” in E-flat now referred to as No. 0, the Op. 61a piano version of the Violin Concerto, and the 258 bars of a D major concerto that if completed would have been his only relatively late work in the form (1814-15). There is, however, always room for yet another cycle of the traditional five Beethoven piano concertos in their traditional numbering (although No. 2 was written before No. 1) – provided that the performances have some unusual, interesting and/or insightful views of the music. The new release featuring Garrick Ohlsson and the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra under Sir Donald Runnicles certainly qualifies, providing some highly personal perspectives on the music – especially the first four concertos.

     There is nothing historically informed here, no period instruments or period practices, and Ohlsson unashamedly plays a modern Steinway. The orchestra is modest by modern standards (54 players) and consists of highly adept musicians who do not usually perform together but who gather for the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming, where these recordings were made. The setting may help explain the sense throughout of cordial, amiable music making, much of it expansive: these are by and large relaxed performances, sometimes a bit lacking in intensity, that tend to drift pleasantly through familiar environs. And if familiarity with the music is what helps the musicians play it so assuredly, it is surely also an element of Ohlsson’s ease with the concertos, recorded here when he was 74 years old (in 2022) – he learned one of these concertos when he was only 14, and his 60 years of engagement with the music definitely inform his relationship with it.

     We know a bit about Ohlsson’s history with these concertos because he contributes one of the essays in the enclosed booklet – which also offers remarks by Runnicles, a straightforward once-over-lightly discussion of the music (by Scott Foglesong), and some enthusiastic comments by producer Vic Muenzer, who is a major force here. The SACD sound of this Reference Recordings release is one of its very best features: Muenzer and his team produce an ambience that allows listeners at home (whether they have the full SACD experience or the CD version) to become part of an intimate set of performances by a close-knit group that comes together with a sense of old friends making music for the sheer joy of it.

     The interpretations of the concertos fall, no doubt unintentionally, into two parts, Nos. 1-3 and Nos. 4-5. No. 1 features very warm orchestral sound from the start and a perky piano entry in the first movement. The pacing is slow, not really con brio, and Ohlsson occasionally slows matters down even a bit beyond the basic leisurely pace. He plays with more delicacy than is usual on modern concert grands, avoiding too much pedal and thus showing the Mozartean influences in the movement. The balance between piano and orchestra is exceptional, a product both of the performers and of the engineering of the recording. There is a chamber-music feeling to much of the movement, at least until the cadenza, which grumbles a bit too much in the lower register and really is a bit over-extended in a movement that lasts a very unhurried 19 minutes. The second movement has a warmly pastoral feeling, with the primary impression of collaborative pleasure – certainly nothing competitive between soloist and ensemble. Ohlsson spins out the melodies as if he has all the time in the world, and the movement comes across as an essay in gentleness. There is finally some get-up-and-go in the finale, where the clarity in the piano is noteworthy (no pun intended): every grace note, other ornamentation, and all the runs are crystalline – an approach that Ohlsson sustains throughout the entire cycle.

     No. 2 opens with notable (again, no pun intended) delicacy and, again, slow pacing. The warmth of sound is perhaps a bit much for this modestly scaled movement, and the tempo is again not really con brio. Here too Mozart-inherited elements are brought to the fore, but a little more liveliness would have been welcome. There is nothing taut here – everything flows smoothly. The cadenza starts very deliberately, with Ohlsson caressing every note; there is nothing show-off-ish – even the chords are modestly struck, never pounded. The movement lasts 15 minutes and is a bit lacking in verve despite the excellent playing. The second movement is quite Romantic-sounding at the start, almost swooning – an unusual approach for early Beethoven. There is a nocturne-like feeling in the piano, which creates a sense of meandering and an almost autumnal quality. Toward the end, the piano notes just hang there in what sounds like the antithesis of virtuosity: it is all beautiful but somewhat somnolent. The finale’s bouncy opening provides a strong contrast, although everything is still presented with delicacy. Ohlsson and Runnicles downplay any drama here: the feeling is one of drifting pleasantly through note-filled groves of harmony.

     No. 3 opens with better first-movement pacing, and the suitable darkness of the minor key is handled well but not overdone. Again, matters are expansive once the piano enters, with Ohlsson taking care to be sure all individual notes are clearly audible in turns, trills and runs. The cascading in the cadenza is almost Chopinesque here, and Ohlsson really dwells on that cadenza, giving this movement (like the opening one in No. 1) the feeling of a solo-piano recital. However, the entry of timpani to end the cadenza – an effect looking forward to Op. 61a – is particularly well-handled. The second movement has a quiet, almost hesitant start, and here as in No. 1, it is played as if there is near-infinite time for the music to unfold. The delicacy throughout is so pronounced that the music often sounds as if it is about to stop altogether and fade away; but it never quite does. The delicate shadings of volume are especially well-done – again, a collaborative effort of performers and engineers to exceptionally fine effect. The finale features especially good orchestral elements, with the trumpets particularly strong. The precision of piano notes is yet again the most salient characteristic here. The balance between solo and ensemble, which is especially important in this movement, is managed very well, and the quiet orchestral portions are notable for their clarity – with the eventual coda bright and well-paced.

     The approach in the first three concertos would seem especially apt for the fourth, but here Ohlsson and Runnicles have a surprise for listeners. The first movement of No. 4 is paced more briskly than would be expected based on Nos. 1-3. Still nicely balanced and played with enthusiasm, it is offered as a true Allegro without Beethoven’s modifier moderato. Although soloist and conductor remain attentive to details, the movement is less emotional than might be expected, with fewer proto-Romantic overtones – it is actually a little on the cool side. The enthusiastic cadenza is presented with less rubato than the earlier ones and a touch more emphasis on sheer virtuosity, but it is still played with sensitivity. In the second movement, the sense of the piano “calming” the orchestra is less pronounced than usual, because even in this movement the level of cooperation between soloist and ensemble is so great. There is less orchestral intensity than usual in this movement, with plenty of warmth from the piano – in all, a feeling of relaxation rather than conquest. The finale is upbeat and enthusiastic, with a genuine sense of joy, even exhilaration. Here the orchestra actually dominates the proceedings, the piano taking on more of an obbligato role. This ebullient movement is the happiest in any of these five concertos, and it certainly sounds that way here. Beethoven specified that this movement’s cadenza must be short, and it is – and less attention-getting than those in the earlier concertos. It leads to a coda that is very bright and emphatic.

     No. 5, the “Emperor,” starts with an impressive flourish, and here again the first movement is brisk. Ohlsson uses the pedal less sparingly here than elsewhere – a contrast with the orchestra, which sounds thinner and clearer throughout the smartly paced proceedings. The movement is stately, with strong rhythmic emphasis and even flow, and does sound regal – but is more straightforward than several other movements in this release: there is nothing revelatory here. The quiet parts of the cadenza-like section near the end are the most interesting. The second movement comes across as a pleasant pastoral interlude. It is not very emotional – well-played but rather superficial. It proffers no particular insights but sounds very pretty. The very slow fade toward the end is the best part. And then comes the finale – which at the start is quite fast, a surprise in this set of recordings. The unexpected burst of speed at the opening leads to a strongly accented, fast-flowing performance in which the runs are not quite as precise as they are elsewhere and the whole seems a bit rushed. Certainly it is not magisterial. There are welcome touches of delicacy in the higher reaches of the piano, and the back-and-forth between soloist and ensemble is well-handled throughout. As a whole, though, this interpretation is the blandest and most straightforward of the five as heard here.

     The three-SACD set concludes with a five-minute encore in the form of the overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, in which the orchestra really shines – from the strongly accented opening through the very clear articulation of the scurrying strings in the quickly paced main theme.

     There is a great deal of excellence throughout this exceptionally fine-sounding set, but there are missteps or odd decisions here and there, not only in the performances but also in the presentation. For instance, it is genuinely bizarre that the set does not provide timings for the movements of the concertos or even for entire individual concertos – it only lists the total time of each disc. And some of the written material is on the vapid side, such as the offhand dismissal of Op. 61a by calling it “an ill-advised attempt at refashioning the great Violin Concerto for piano [that] squats glumly between the fourth and fifth piano concertos.” This sort of thing is unworthy of a release that, if it is determinedly and unapologetically old-fashioned in eschewing contemporary understanding of historical performance, is nevertheless packed with excellence in the playing, thoughtfulness in the interpretations, and a sound world that befits Beethoven by allowing all the pleasures of his musical thinking – and the Ohlsson/Runnicles interpretation of it – to come through with uncompromised quality.

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